A KEEN EMPLOYER. 1805—7. [ÆT. 48—50]
JUNE 18th, 1805, is the engraver’s date on the plates to the duodecimo edition, already mentioned, of Hayley’s Ballads on Animals: an edition planned during the Felpham stay; printed by Seagrave, of Chichester, for Richard Phillips, and, as I said, for Blake’s benefit; which, I fear, proved nil. The book fell still-born from the press, though now in some degree of request, on account of Blake’s plates. These, however, are unfair examples of his skill and imperfect versions of his design. They have more than Blake’s ordinary hardness of manner. Two—The Eagle and The Lion—are repetitions from the quarto. The Dog, The Hermits Dog, and The Horse, are new. The last-named is, perhaps, the finest in the series. Even though the horse’s hind leg be in an impossible position, and though there be the usual lack of correct local detail, very striking and soulful is the general effect; especially so is that serene, majestic, feminine figure, standing before her terrified child and bravely facing the frenzied animal, which, by mere spiritual force, she subdues into motionless awe.
To Hayley succeeded a patron who will give even less pecuniary help, but a more efficient introduction to the public. This was R. H. Cromek, hitherto an engraver, now turning print-jobber and book-maker, who at this period discovered Blake. The slighted artist sorely needed a discoverer; he and his wife being now, according to Cromek, ‘reduced so low as to be obliged to live on half a guinea a week.’ ‘Living’ must here mean board; for weekly rent alone
would amount to that sum. Thus inter¬preted, the statement is not an exaggerated one of Blake’s straitened resources at this and other periods of his life.
During 1804 to 1805 had been produced that series of Drawings illustrative of Blair’s Grave, by which, from the accident of their having been afterwards really published and pushed in the regular way, Blake is most widely known— known at all, I may say—to the public at large. It is the only volume, with his name on its title-page, which is not ‘scarce.’ These drawings Blake had intended engraving and publishing himself. They were seen, however, admired, and purchased, by engraver Cromek—’ engraver, printseller, publisher, author—and Yorkshireman.’ He gave, according to Smith, ‘the insignificant sum of one guinea each for them,’ but, in fact, a guinea and a half ‘on the express understanding,’ adds Smith, ‘that the artist was to engrave them for a projected edition of The Grave.’ This, involving a far more considerable remunera¬tion, would have made the total payment for the designs tolerably adequate.
Robert Hartley Cromek, a native of Hull, now a man of five-and-thirty, had been a pupil of Bartolozzi, and, during the past ten years, had engraved, with credit, many book plates after Stothard. He was one in the numerous band whom that graceful artist’s active fingers kept employed; for, as may well be believed, it is vastly quicker work the making of designs than the engraving them. Among Cromek’s doing are some of the plates to an edition of The Spectator (1803), to Du Roveray’s edition of Pope (1804), and one in an early edition of Rogers’ Pleasures of Memory. With a nervous temperament and an indifferent constitution, the painful confinement of his original profession ill agreed. An active, scheming dis¬position, combined with some taste for literature and superficial acquaintance with it, tempted him to exchange, as many second-rate engravers have done, the steady drudgery of engraving for the more profitable, though speculative, trade of print-publisher and dealer, or farmer of the talents of others.
He had little or no capital. This edition of Blair’s Grave, with illustrations by Blake, was his first venture. And twenty guineas for twelve of the most original designs of the century, and not unintelligible designs, though from Blake’s mystic hand, was no bad beginning. Even in this safe investment, however, the tasteful Yorkshireman showed bolder discernment of unvalued genius than the stolid trade ever hazarded.
In 1805 the Prospectus was issued; from which it appears, it was then intended for Blake to engrave the illustrations. The Prospectus was helped by an elaborate opinion in favour of the Designs from Fuseli’s friendly pen, whose word then carried almost judicial weight. As collateral guarantee was added an authorized statement of their cordial approval by President West, and ten other academicians; among them Cosway, Flaxman, Lawrence, Nollekens, Stothard. These were credentials by which the practical Cromek set some store. He had submitted the drawings to those academic dons, disinterestedly anxious to be assured ‘how far he was warranted in calling the attention of connoisseurs to what he himself imagined to be a high and original effort of genius’; not, of course, with any eye to the value of such testimonials with the public. Accomplished Thomas Hope—Anastasius Hope—and virtuoso Mr. Locke, of Norbury, also ‘pledged their character as connoisseurs’ (according to Malkin) in their favour, ‘by approving and patronizing these designs.’
Blake was looking ‘forward with anxious delight’ to the congenial task of engraving his ‘Inventions,’ and did engrave one or two. A print in his peculiar, vigorous manner, from his favourite design—Death’s Door—I have seen. But shrewd Cromek’s eye had been educated in the school of graceful Bartolozzi. By him, Blake’s old-fashioned, austere style was quickly perceived to be not in unison with public taste, and far less likely to draw subscribers than a lucid version of his wild grandeur by some competent hand. To the initiated, an artist’s render¬ing of his own conception—that, say, of
an Albert Dürer, a Lucas von Leyden, a Hogarth—has always the infinitely superior claim, in its first-hand vigour, freshness, and air of an original. Such engravings are, in fact, originals.
Cromek selected for his purpose Lewis Schiavonetti, a native of Bassano, in Venetia, who, on coming to England, had put himself under Bartolozzi, Cromek’s master. In that studio, probably, the two became acquainted. Schiavo¬netti rose above all Bartolozzi’s other pupils; above the master too; developing an individual style, which united grandeur with grace, boldness, draughtsman-like power, and intelligence with executive delicacy and finish. It was a happy choice of engraver on Cromek’s part, and with his views. The large outlay requisite to secure the Italian’s services was pretty sure of ultimate return, with good interest. Cromek’s sagacity cannot, indeed, be denied. It resulted in the wedding of remarkable powers of engraving to high design, worthy of them. In his brief course, Schiavonetti was generally most unfortunate in having subjects to engrave not deserving of his skill. A previous engraving from Leonardo’s noble Cartoon of Pisa, the plates to The Grave, and a subsequent etching from Stothard’s Canterbury Pilgrims, are the only examples of a fitly-directed exercise of his powers. By them alone can they now be estimated. On another ground, Cromek’s decision can hardly be blamed. Schiavonetti introduced Blake’s designs to a wider public than himself could ever have done.
On the other hand, the purchaser of the designs having made a certain engagement, it was not open to him, in honour or common honesty, because it was an unwritten one, to depart from it for his own advantage, without Blake’s consent, or without making compensation to the artist for his pecuniary loss. In point of fact, Cromek jockeyed Blake out of his copyright. And Blake was naturally mortified and incensed at the loss of profitable and happy employment to which the new arrangement sentenced him, and at becoming a mere conduit for the enrichment of two fellow-engravers.
Allan Cunningham, who also had had relations with Cromek, and had kindly reasons for judging him leniently, tells us the speculator, in paying Blake twenty guineas for the twelve designs, gave a price which, ‘though small, was more than what he usually received for such productions.’ This is what Cromek, or his widow, told Cunningham; but the statement is incorrect True, Blake’s gains were always small. A guinea to a guinea and a half each was his price for the water-colour drawings sold to Mr. Butts and others. But then he did not lose his copyright; he was always at liberty to make duplicates and to engrave them. Clearly he did make more by those; more, also, by the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and the other series of designs which he kept in his own hands, and sold engraved copies of, for sums varying from five to twenty guineas.
While Schiavonetti was at work on his etchings from the Designs to Blair, hungry Cromek would call every now and then on Blake, to see what he was doing. One day, he caught sight of a pencil drawing from a hitherto virgin subject—the Procession of Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims; Chaucer being a poet read by fewer then than now. Cromek ‘appeared highly delighted’ with Blake’s sketch, says Smith, as being an original treatment of an original subject. In point of fact, he wanted to secure a finished drawing from it, for the purpose of having it engraved, and without employing Blake, just as he had served him over the Designs to The Grave; as I learn from other
sources, on sifting the matter. However, Blake was not to be taken in a second time. Negotiations on that basis failed; but, as Blake understood the matter, he received a commission, tacit or express, from Cromek, to execute the design. The Yorkshireman, nevertheless, went to Stothard, suggested the subject as a novelty, and, in fine, commissioned of that artist an oil-picture for sixty guineas, to be engraved by Bromley; for whom Schiavonetti was eventually substituted. Whether Stothard knew of Blake’s design I can hardly
pronounce; possibly not; certainly he did not, I should say, of Cromek’s previous overtures to Blake, nor of the fact that a subscription paper for an engraving of the Canterbury Pilgrims had been circulated by Blake’s friends.
This was in 1806, two years before the publication of The Grave. One day, while Stothard was painting his picture, Blake called on his friend and saw it, ignorant, evidently, that it was to supersede his own, and that slippery Cromek was at the bottom of its having existed at all; nay, was making it his next speculation with the public. For the two artists to design from the same poets and subjects was no new thing, as a comparison of their works will show. Take, for instance, the Night Thoughts of Young, illustrated by Blake in 1797, by Stothard in 1802. Such coincidences naturally happen to all painters of history and poetry. According to Stothard, Blake praised his picture, and expressed much pleasure at seeing it. Stothard, on his side, talked of introducing Blake (a good subject, by the way) into the Procession, ‘as a mark of esteem for him and his works.’ From these he candidly confessed to have long derived pleasure and profit.
When Blake came to know how the case really stood, his indignation was vehement against Cromek, at whom his grudge was yet fresh for having robbed him of the engraving his designs to Blair. Indignation, too, he long cherished towards Stothard, whom he took to have been privy to Cromek’s previous dealings with himself for his design from Chaucer. My own induction from all the evidence coincides with Flaxman’s opinion, viz., that Stothard’s act was not a wilful one, in being made a party to an engraving of a picture by himself, on a subject previously taken by Blake. Certain it is, indeed, that the general composition of his Procession has a suspicious resemblance to Blake’s. This, however, may be due to hints given by the unscrupulous go-between.
By May, 1807, Stothard’s ‘Cabinet Picture’ was publicly exhi-
bited; and, what with its own merits and novelty, and what with Cromek’s judicious puffing, drew several thousand gazers and admirers. Hoppner, at the end of May, wrote an encomiastic descriptive ‘Letter’ to Cum¬berland, printed in Prince Hoare’s Artist, and turned to good account in Cromek’s Prospectus for the engrav¬ing. Connoisseur, picture-dealing Carey,—afterwards as ‘Ridolfi,’ Etty’s panegyrist,—always too happy to get his verbiage set up in type free of cost, penned a still longer Critical Description the following year, which wily Cromek had well circulated as a bait to subscribers.
During this May was scribbled a letter from Cromek to Blake, bearing incidentally on this matter, but mainly on the designs to The Grave, and the differences which had arisen between the two. The letter sets forcibly before us Blake’s circumstances at the time; is an example of the spurns he from the unworthy took; and throws a flood of light on the character of the writer. It subsequently fell into Allan Cunningham’s hands, thence into his son, Mr. Peter Cunningham’s, and has been printed in the Gentle¬man’s Magazine (Feb. 1852):—
‘64, Newman Street, May, 1807.
‘I rec’d, not witht great surprise, your letter demanding four guineas for the sketched vignette dedn to the Queen. I have returned the drawing with this note, and I will briefly state my reasons for so doing. In the first place, I do not think it merits the price you affix to it, under any circumstances. In the next place, I never had the remotest suspicion that you’d for a moment entertain the idea of writing me to supply money to create an honour in wh I cannot possibly participate. The Queen allowed you, not me, to dedicate the work to her! The honour wd have been yours exclusy; but that you might not be deprived of any advantage likely to contribute to your reputation, I was willing to pay Mr. Schiavonetti ten guineas for etching a plate from the drawing in question.
‘Another reason for returning the sketch is, that I can do without it, having already engaged to give a greater number of etchings than the price
of the book will warrant; and I neither have, nor ever had, any encouragement from you to place you before the public in a more favourable point of view than that which I have already chosen. You charge me wh imposing upon you. Upon my honour, I have no recollection of anything of the kind. If the world and I were to settle accounts to-morrow, I do assure you the balance wd be considerably in my favour. In this respect I am more sinned against than sinning! But if I cannot recollect any instances wherein I have imposed upon you, several present themselves in wh I have imposed upon myself. Take two or three that press upon me.
‘When I first called on you, I found you without reputation; I imposed on myself the labour, and an herculean one it has been, to create and establish a reputation for you. I say the labour was herculean, because I had not only to contend with, but I had to battle with a man who had predetermined not to be served. What public reputation you have, the reputation of eccentricity excepted, I have acquired for you; and I can honestly and conscientiously assert, that if you had laboured through life for yourself as zealously and as earnestly as I have done for you, your reputation as an artist wd not only have been enviable, but it would have put it out of the power of an individual as obscure as myself either to add or to take from it. I also imposed on myself when I believed what you so often have told me, that your works were equal, nay superior, to a Raphael, or to a Michael Angelo! Unfortunately for me as a publisher, the public awoke me from this state of stupor, this mental delusion. That public is willing to give you credit for what real talent is to be found in your productions, and for no more.
‘I have imposed on myself yet more grossly in believing you to be one altogether abstracted from this world, holding converse with the world of spirits! simple, unoffending, a combination of the serpent and the dove. I really blush when I reflect how I have been cheated in this respect. The most effectual way of benefiting a designer whose aim is general patronage, is to bring his designs before the public through the medium of engraving. Your drawings have had the good fortune to be engraved by one of the first artists in Europe, and the specimens already shown have already produced you orders that I verily believe you other¬wise wd not have recd. Herein I have been gratified, for I was determined to bring you food as well as reputation, though, from your late conduct, I have some reason to embrace your wild opinion, that to manage genius, and to cause it to produce good things, it is absolutely necessary to starve it; indeed,
this opinion is considerably heightened by the recollection that your best work, the illustrations of “The Grave,” was produced when you and Mrs. Blake were reduced so low as to be obliged to live on half a guinea a week!
‘Before I conclude this letter, it will be necessary to remark, when I gave you the order for the drawings from the poem of ‘The Grave,’ I paid you for them more than I could then afford; more in proportion than you were in the habit of receiving, and what you were perfectly satisfied with; though I must do you the justice to confess much less than I think is their real value. Perhaps you have friends and admirers who can appreciate their merit and worth as much as I do. I am decidedly of opinion that the twelve for “The Grave” should sell at the least for sixty guineas. If you can meet with any gentleman who will give you this sum for them, I will deliver them into his hands on the publication of the poem. I will deduct the twenty guineas I have paid you from that sum, and the remainder forty ditto shall be at your disposal.
‘I will not detain you more than one minute. Why did you so furiously rage at the success of the little picture of “The Pilgrimage?” Three thousand people have now seen it and have approved of it. Believe me, yours is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness!”
‘You say the subject is low, and contemptibly treated. For his excellent mode of treating the subject, the poet had been admired for the last 400 years! The poor painter has not yet the advan¬tage of antiquity on his side, therefore wh some people an apology may be necessary for him. The conclusion of one of Squire Timkin’s letters to his mother in the Bath Guide will afford one. He speaks greatly to the purpose:—
‘“I very well know,
Both my subject and verse is exceedingly low;
But if any great critic finds fault with my letter,
He has nothing to do but to send you a better.”
‘With much respect for your talents,
‘I remain, Sir,
‘Your real friend and well-wisher,
‘R. H. CROMEK.’
It is one thing to read such a letter fifty years after it was written, though one can hardly do so without indigna¬tion; another to have had to receive and digest its low affronts. A poet had need have a world of visions to retire to when exposed to these ‘slings and arrows of out¬rageous fortune.’ Blake might well get irascible, might well give vent to his contempt and scorn in epigrams such as the following, which I find in that same MS. note-book wherein poor Hayley figures so ignominiously:—
Cromek loves artists as he loves his meat;
He loves the art, but ‘tis the art to cheat!
A petty sneaking knave I knew;
Oh, Mr. Cromek! how do you do?
Here is a taste of’ Cromek’s opinions put into rhyme.
* * *
I always take my judgments from a fool,
Because his judgment is so very cool;
Not prejudiced by feelings great and small.
Amiable state! he cannot feel at all.
And yet is not a needy publisher to make that profit out of a needy painter he cannot for himself? May not the purchaser of twelve drawings at twenty pounds do what he likes with his own? That Cromek had no answer to the charge of ‘imposition,’ and of having tricked Blake, is obvious from his preferring to open up irrelevant questions: he defends by attacking. The artist’s discouragement of Cromek’s herculean labours in behalf of Blake’s fame, refers to his infatuated preference for being his own engraver, according to agreement Through Cromek’s reluctance to part with four guineas, the Blair lost a crowning grace in the vignette or setting, as in Blake’s hands it would have been, of the Dedication to the Queen.
Poor Blake, in asking four guineas instead of one, for a single sketch, had evidently felt entitled to some insignifi¬cant atonement for previous under-pay. Perhaps, on the hint at the close of Cromek’s letter—
‘He has nothing to do but to send you a better,’
the indignant painter acted in executing, hereafter, his projected ‘fresco’ from the Canterbury Pilgrimage, and exhibiting and engraving it.